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MOVIE REVIEW
Broker (2022)

“Broker” is a mess. It doesn’t quite know what point it wants to make about parents who can’t, or won’t, look after their babies, which means that it’s never sure where its sympathies ought to lie. At the start it seems simple. It’s a rainy night when a young woman in a black raincoat approaches a church in Busan, South Korea. It has a baby box, a place where unwanted infants can be safely left, but instead the young woman leaves her baby on the ground. Two other women (Bae Doona and Lee Joo-young) are watching from a car, and one approaches the baby and puts him in the box instead. What? Inside the church two men pick up the baby and delete the security camera footage. Wait, what? One of those men in Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), who works part-time in the orphanage attached to the church; the other is his friend Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho). Sang-hyun and Dong-soo are traffickers (the “brokers” of the title), prepared to sell abandoned infants for, well, it depends on the gender. Male babies are 10 million won (£6,200/$7,600). Female ones are 8 million won (£5,000/$6,100). This baby, whose name, Woo-sung (Park Ji-yong), is left in a note, is a male one.

This is not a lot of money, but Sang-hyun sees no ethical issue with selling on what someone else has “thrown away.” Besides, he owes big gambling debts to the local gangsters, so really needs some fast cash. Except the next day Woo-sung’s mother So-young (a superb Lee Ji-eun, better known as popstar IU) comes back for him. Dong-soo intercepts her at the orphanage and takes her to see the baby at Sang-hyun’s dry cleaners, but not for a teary reunion: Once she learns how much money is on the table she is all in. Buyers up the coast? What are they waiting for? They pile into Sang-hyun’s ratty delivery van and drive off. The two women follow, at a discreet distance.

It's all very “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Paper Moon,” how this broke and ragtag bunch in a falling-apart van bond over their journey, except they’re on a vile mission with the absolute horror of So-young’s slowly revealed backstory in the vehicle with them. After a pitstop at the orphanage where Dong-soo grew up, they discover 8-year-old orphan Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo) has also stowed away with his soccer ball. He’s overheard everything and wants adoptive parents too, so Sang-hyun and Dong-soo decide he’d better tag along. It’s all very jolly. They take the baby to the doctor when he pops a fever; Hae-jin is given all the sweets he can eat; when the police stop them it’s out of concern for a broken latch on the van; everyone is clean and warm and fed and safe and having a nice time. Of course, all this heartwarming bonding is in service of trafficking an infant, with the unaddressed grimness of So-young’s life right in the middle of it. At first there’s no sympathy for her from anyone, just plenty of slut-shaming and lots of comments about how baby boxes allow mothers to be irresponsible. But gosh and golly, what are plot twists for.

Weirdly, the violence the characters commit is seen as ethical, while So-young’s choices towards the baby are – well, they are just a mess. It’s never explained why she came back, other than in service of the plot. The way in which the buyers are found is also never detailed, which is an irritating lacuna. Writer-director Hirozaku Kore-eda specializes in stories of abandoned children, but this is the first time he has focused on the adults who do the abandoning. And it’s not that this couldn’t be interesting, but he’s attempting to make a cheery road movie out of a really dark subject. Worse, the involvement of the two women in the other car cannot be addressed without spoilers, but suffice to say that all of their choices do the opposite of what they intended. They also force the actions of the other characters in a way which makes the whole thing an unnatural exercise. Without the interference of the two women in the other car, the plot could have unfolded with a less heavy hand. But by choosing to have them, Mr. Kore-eda manipulated both his own plot and the reactions of the audience to the manipulations of the plot, leading to an ending of pure schmaltz, so sugar-coated you might be like the over-excited Hae-jin on a ferris wheel and nearly barf from all the indulgence.

It is sloppy work indeed from such a skilled director. But it might have been the only way he could think of to make So-young sympathetic, though the horrors piled upon her head do that for us, especially since she keeps having to ask all these people getting mad at her if they’d have preferred her to have an abortion. Strangely, in Ms. Lee’s two big emotional scenes – one on a train cutting in and out of tunnels, the others in a weary motel room – Mr. Kore-eda cuts the lights, meaning he hides her face at the most crucial moments. It’s the most obviously unkind directorial choice seen in a while. Mr. Gang radiates a wounded decency that makes it perfectly believable all the kids at an orphanage would naturally flock to him; and Mr. Song is a superstar with enough charm to, well, sell a baby and still come out looking like the good guy. But not even these three expert performances can cover the rottenness at this movie’s core.

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